Should Artists Reflect The Times In Which They Create?

The singer-songwriter, pianist and activist Nina Simone is commonly quoted on her remarks on an artist’s objective and duty: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” You can watch her full remark on the topic here. Her words became prominent in my mind as I watched a video of Jay Z’s TIDAL concert freestyle, which is embedded below. Here’s one of the more interesting quotes from it, particularly the underlined portion:

You know n****s die for equal pay right?
You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?
You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high fiving.
You know this ain’t back in the days right?
But I can’t tell, how the way they killed Freddie Gray right?
Shot down Mike Brown, how they did Tray right?
Let them continue choking n****s.
We gonna turn style, I ain’t your token n***a.

This verse is the first time the public had heard Jay Z speak on the current state of police brutality, which has been brought into the forefront of most of our lives through social media. A continuous list of names, such as Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and more recently, Freddie Gray, have been introduced to us through hashtags. A lot of us love to see that the artists we see and/or listen to are in tune to what is going on with the rest of the world, so sometimes we want to hear their thoughts on the situation. That didn’t change with this situation. Even more, in this case, it seems to be imperative that artists, particularly artists of color, speak on it or at the very least acknowledge it. A lot of us want our artists to “reflect the times.” However, we have had many comments from creatives and famous individuals that a lot of people do not agree with. Is Ms. Simone’s quote still relevant in 2015, even if the opinion is an unpopular one? Should the artist make comments about current events in public forums, like in interviews or social media? Or, should the reflection of the times only be addressed in the artwork?

The comments about the times in which we live should come from our artists in any form they choose, but it seems that the “message in the art” approach is best.

One recent example that quickly comes to mind is Kendrick Lamar’s comments to Billboard about how people of color are targeted by police, which is that people of color don’t seem to love and support themselves or one another, which is linked here. While I understood what he said, I disagreed with his approach, as stereotypes shouldn’t be used by the police to justify the targeting of a group of people. However, a month after the article was published, Kendrick dropped the second single from To Pimp A Butterfly, “The Blacker The Berry,” which is a very pro-Black record that addressed his previous comment. For the most part, the message went over better in this artistic manner compared to his Billboard interview.

Art has given people the opportunity to express their thoughts on everything that concerns them. For artists like Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z, whose voices and opinions are valued, art provides that voice in a way that the artist’s fans can understand. If the artist wants their opinion understood or put in a creative way, then the “message in the art” approach is best. If it doesn’t matter to them, then they should state their opinion in whatever way suits them. I’ll take an opinion either way. 

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